The last time Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn made a film together, they created a complex crime thriller in Drive. It held a lot of its charm in the contradictions it existed in: excessively stylish, yet minimalistic; straightforward, but filled with an overwhelming surrealism in the second half. Drive was simply a great film that was easy to like even with all the eccentricities. There’s nothing simple about liking Only God Forgives. I think I’ve rewritten this piece half a dozen times, trying to gleam out some sort of coherence in my words. As much as I try, Only God Forgives forgoes the status quo beyond the confines of its 90 minutes. It’s a film that staunchly accepts it niche, right to the point of total alienation of even those who want to like it.
The trailer looks like an old John Woo romp. Uzis a blazing, fast chase sequences, and possible hand to hand combat; all that’s missing is a dove or two. But much Like Drive’s trailer, which looks like another Fast and Furious film, it is simply a trick. Everything you see will happen in a convoluted and unrecognizable way. It is not surprising considering half the movie is in Thai and is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky. The story is simple: Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) operate a muay thai club, seemingly a front for their mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas, in Bangkok. After Billy’s murder is allowed by Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringram), Crystal vows revenge. Beyond that simple synopsis, the film treads toward an even more extreme heightened reality than it’s spiritual predecessor.
Every possible moment in Only God Forgives is taken to its extreme. Neon lights flash throughout, creating shadows that are breathtakingly strewn across frames, often engulfing entire scenes with wonton disregard. The darkness of these shadows stretch into surrealistic dream sequences that fill Julian’s subconscious, beginning and ending with almost no warning. Lt. Chang goes from a scary supernatural being in one scene (especially when using his sword that appears out of thin air) to a loving father in another. Nothing is more strange in the film than its approach to violence. Close ups of torture and death happen constantly; limbs shorn off with abandon. These acts are superficial and downright deplorable, but they serve purpose when connected to the interesting narrative techniques Refn uses.
Repetition is a key element in Only God Forgives. Sets of scenes that are repeated in the film, work together, foreshadowing the film’s final moments. Alone they are either too absurd (karaoke scenes) or too abstract (dream sequences), but seeing them over and over creates a meaning. The karaoke become ritual, the dreams foreshadowing the film’s end. These acts of repetition create their meanings carefully and methodically, but refuse being completely clear. The most gripping of these repetitions falls to Julian’s hands. The audience is told his hands are dangerous, that his past harbors a terrible example of his deadliness. Refn sets up these images to bolster this idea, only to take the rug out from under the viewer and reveal their true meaning.
In addition to repetition, Many of these meanings in the film are hidden beneath layers of intricate juxtaposition. So many things are hinted at with a few sequences that melded together. At one point, Julian is shown with his usual escort/love interest in the midst of a sexual moment. This is then continuously cutting away to his mother clearly getting her rocks off at a strange bodybuilder strip club. This sequence is uncomfortable and chilling, establishing the Oedipal nature of Julian’s relationship with his mother. The sole altercation between Lt. Chang and Julian also creates a wonderful juxtaposition. A statue of a revered fighter is intercut with Lt. Chang. They are seen as one during the fight. Although like everything in the film it is never explicitly stated, whether the connection between the two is that of their skills or directly as one being a direct representation of the other, the scene echos one of Lt. Chang’s soldier’s lines “Do you know who he is?
Gosling and Pansringarm bring measured and quite parallel performances. Gosling delivers round 17 lines as Julian, making his already subtle role even more so. Pansringarm’s best moment as Lt Chang comes not when he is at his fiercest, but rahter during a very calm scene with his daughter. These two actors achieve greater performances with a slight moving of their head than most actors do with hundreds of lines of dialogue. That’s not to diminish Scott Thomas’ portrayal Crystal. Her scenes are manic interludes of the minimalism of the film, serving as a stark contrast. Scott Thomas flaunts a sense of supremacy needed for her character, who’s power is not as concrete as she would imagine.
Amongst themes of abuse, misogyny, and abhorrent violence lies the central and most overlooked ideal of forgiveness. While the plot of the film screams revenge, its conceit implores absolution. Julian’s emotionless and numb waking life doesn’t refer to psychopathy, but rather an attempt to right the wrongs he has done. It’s insinuated that Julian was made empty after years of abuse, forced to do things he did not want to do. His journey in the film is not for revenge or even redemption from those injustices laid upon him. It is a search for some sort of meaning through an act of forgiveness, whatever form it takes.
Only God Forgives makes it hard to like it. The film is steadfastly stubborn in it’s execution, giving little regard to it’s audience. Despite it’s deplorable nature Only God Forgives is confidant, something that many films lack. I think the film is fantastic, more than worth a watch. It is currently available streaming on Netflix.